Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, pictured at a July 14 news conference, says the state’s new, enforceable standard requiring employers to protect workers from COVID-19 “is not only a critical part of stopping the spread of this virus, it’s key to our economic recovery.”

Employers in Virginia must follow a strict set of rules to protect workers from COVID-19 or face stiff penalties, under an emergency standard issued this week by the state’s Safety and Health Codes Board.

Unions pushed for the standard, which is the first of its kind in the country. The board passed it 9-2 over the strident objections of business groups.

“Workers should not have to sacrifice their health and safety to earn a living, especially during an ongoing global pandemic,” said Gov. Ralph Northam. “In the face of federal inaction, Virginia has stepped up to protect workers.”

The temporary rules, which will be in place for six months, vary in stringency depending on a job’s risk level. They focus on social distancing, personal protective equipment, sanitation, preparedness, record-keeping and training.

Masks, for instance, are required for any interaction with customers, and at all times when social distancing isn’t possible.

Employers must notify employees within 24 hours if a coworker tests positive for COVID-19. Whether or not test results are available, management must bar any worker showing signs of the virus from returning for at least three days after symptoms subside, or until they test negative.

Defying the rules could cost employers up to $130,000, the maximum penalty for “willful and repeat” violations, according to the Virginia Mercury and other media reports. The fines are among details that the state hasn’t publicized officially, pending legal steps to finalize the rules. The process is expected to be complete by the end of the month.

With input from labor and business, the board debated and amended the rules during four full days of virtual meetings over the course of three weeks.

Business groups argued that state regulators already have the authority to address unsafe job conditions. State officials said such powers are limited under existing rules, while the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued just one citation nationwide related to COVID-19, the Mercury reported.

The standard is the latest in a series of actions Virginia has taken to protect and support workers since union members turned the House and Senate blue in 2019, in addition to having elected Northam in 2017.

Victories during a two-month session of the Legislature earlier this year included bargaining rights for public workers, the authorization of project labor agreements, penalties for misclassifying workers and a higher minimum wage.

“These new rules are critical to protecting Virginia’s workers, and everyone they come in contact with, from this insidious and dangerous disease,” International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said. “The board’s action will literally save lives, but it wouldn’t have happened if the state’s leadership were in different hands.

“This is one of the starkest examples of just how much your vote matters,” he said. “I urge all of us to bear that in mind as we head toward the most crucial election of our lifetime.”